By Dávid Fazekas
The Moscow Trials were a series of three show trials held in the Soviet Union at the instigation of Joseph Stalin between 1936 and 1938. The Moscow Trials included the Trial of the Sixteen, the Trial of the Anti-Soviet TrotskyistCenter, and the Trial of the Twenty-One. The defendants included most of the surviving Old Bolsheviks, as well as the former leadership of the Soviet secret police. Most defendants were charged under Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code with conspiring with the western powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, dismember the Soviet Union, and restore capitalism. The Moscow Trials led to the execution of many of the defendants, including most of the surviving Old Bolsheviks, and the trials are generally seen as part of Stalin’s Great Purge.
Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev formed a ruling ‘troika’ in early 1923 after Vladimir Lenin had become incapacitated from a stroke. The troika effected the marginalization of Leon Trotsky in an internal party power struggle. A few years later, Zinoviev and Kamenev joined the United Front in an alliance with Trotsky which favored Trotskyism and opposed Stalin specifically. Consequently, Stalin allied with Nikolai Bukharin and defeated Trotsky in a power struggle. Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 and Kamenev and Zinoviev temporarily lost their membership in the Communist Party. Zinoviev and Kamenev, in 1932, were found to be complicit in the Ryutin Affair and again were temporarily expelled from the Communist Party. In December 1934, Sergei Kirov was assassinated and, subsequently 15 defendants were found guilty of direct, or indirect, involvement in the crime and were executed. Zinoviev and Kamenev were found to be morally complicit in Kirov’s murder and were sentenced to prison terms of ten and five years, respectively.
Both Kamenev and Zinoviev had been secretly tried in 1935 but it appears that Stalin decided that, with suitable confessions, their fate could be used for propaganda purposes. Genrikh Yagoda oversaw the interrogation proceedings.
The trial was held from August 19 to August 24, 1936 in the small October Hall of the House of the Unions (chosen instead of the larger Hall of Columns, used for earlier trials) and there were 16 defendants. The main charge was forming a terror organization with the purpose of killing Joseph Stalin and other members of the Soviet government. They were tried by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR, with Vasili Ulrikh presiding, and the Prosecutor General being Andrei Vyshinsky.
Defendant Ivan Nikitich Smirnov, was blamed by his co-defendants for being the leader of the Center which planned Kirov’s assassination. He, however, had been in prison since January 1933 and refused to confess. All the defendants were sentenced to death and were subsequently shot in the cellars of Lubyanka prison in Moscow
In December 1935, the original case surrounding Zinoviev began to widen in to what would be called the Trotsky-Zinoviev Center. Stalin received reports that correspondences from Trotsky were found among the possessions of one of those arrested in the widened probe. Consequently, Stalin stressed the importance of the investigation and ordered Nikolai Yezhov to take over the case and ascertain if Trotsky was involved. In June 1936, Yagoda reiterated his belief to Stalin that there was no link between Trotsky and Zinoviev, but Stalin promptly rebuked him.
In July 1936, Zinoviev and Kamenev were brought to Moscow from an unspecified prison. They were interrogated and denied being part of any Trotsky led conspiracy. Yezhov appealed to Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s devotion to the Soviet Union as old Bolsheviks and advised them that Trotsky was fomenting anti-Soviet sentiment amongst the proletariat in the world. Furthermore, this loss of support, in the event of a war with Germany or Japan, could have disastrous ramifications for the Soviet Union. To Kamenev specifically, Yezhov showed him evidence that his son was subject to an investigation that could result in his son’s execution.
Kamenev and Zinoviev agreed to confess on condition that they receive a direct guarantee from the entire Politburo that their lives and those of their families and followers would be spared. When they were taken to the supposed Politburo meeting, they were met by only Stalin and Kliment Voroshilov. Stalin explained that they were the “commission” authorized by the Politburo, and Stalin agreed to their conditions in order to gain their desired confessions.
The second trial occurred between January 23 and January 30, 1937. This second trial involved 17 lesser figures including Karl Radek, Yuri Piatakov and Grigory Sokolnikov. Thirteen of the defendants were eventually executed by shooting. The rest received sentences in labor camps. Radek was spared as he implicated others, including Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, and Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, setting the stage for the Trial of Military and Trial of the Twenty One.
Radek provided the pretext for the purge on massive scale with his testimony that there was a “third organization separate from the cadres which had passed through [Trotsky’s] school” as well as “semi-Trotskyites, quarter-Trotskyites, one-eighth-Trotskyites, people who helped us, not knowing of the terrorist organization but sympathizing with us, people who from liberalism, from a Fronde against the Party, gave us this help.”
By the third organization, he meant the last remaining former opposition group called Rightists led by Bukharin, whom he implicated by saying: “I feel guilty of one thing more: even after admitting my guilt and exposing the organisation, I stubbornly refused to give evidence about Bukharin. I knew that Bukharin’s situation was just as hopeless as my own, because our guilt, if not juridically, then in essence, was the same. But we are close friends, and intellectual friendship is stronger than other friendships. I knew that Bukharin was in the same state of upheaval as myself. That is why I did not want to deliver him bound hand and foot to the People’s Commissariat of Home Affairs. Just as in relation to our other cadres, I wanted Bukharin himself to lay down his arms.”
At the time, many Western observers who attended the trials said that they were fair and that the guilt of the accused had been established. They based this assessment on the confessions of the accused, which were freely given in open court, without any apparent evidence that they had been extracted by torture or drugging. Joseph E. Davies, the U.S. ambassador, wrote in Mission to Moscow:
“In view of the character of the accused, their long terms of service, their recognized distinction in their profession, their long-continued loyalty to the Communist cause, it is scarcely credible that their brother officers…should have acquiesced in their execution, unless they were convinced that these men had been guilty of some offense.* It is generally accepted by members of the Diplomatic Corps that the accused must have been guilty of an offense which in the Soviet Union would merit the death penalty.
* The Bukharin trial six months later developed evidence which, if true, more than justified this action. Undoubtedly those facts were all full known to the military court at this time.”